Usually, if it's going to take too long (or prove too difficult) most of us don't do it.
At a workshop I did last week on how being joyful leads to success, I was describing various tools and techniques for releasing negativity and boosting focus. In the mindfulness segment of the presentation, I mentioned that enjoying the full benefits of meditation required years of regular practice. A participant immediately groaned and I immediately realized my mindless comment. We live in a world of instant gratification and telling people that something will take a long time is not the way to win them over. It’s absolutely true that meditation practiced regularly over many years has been shown to lower blood pressure, thicken regions of the brain related to memory and learning, strengthen the immune system and much more. I tried to point out that there are more immediate benefits, like stress reduction and increased focus, but I probably lost that participant insofar as becoming a regular meditator. Her response was perfectly normal. I forgot to focus more on the quick hits of mindfulness meditation first before sharing the “bad” news that to reap the full rewards, it takes a long time.
Generally speaking, we want things now rather than later. Our brains are actually wired this way, but as you know by now, we can rewire our neurons to fire differently. The only question is, why would you want to?
I had an ah-ha moment this week, which is why instant gratification was on my mind as I started this week’s podcast. For those of you who don’t know much about me, in what I call my previous life, I was a classic Type A, perfectionist, driven, hyperactive, left-brain linear thinking, ambitious human being; constantly striving to make more money, get more promotions, and break through the glass ceiling for women everywhere. My reboot to become a quiet, reflective, mindful member of the species was not an easy transition. And like most people, I, too, wanted instant relief from the stress and exhaustion of my former life. Almost everyone I know takes some form of medication for anxiety or depression, but that never appealed to me, so I turned to meditation as an answer. What a frustrating activity! I wasn’t good at sitting still. My mind raced at a dizzying speed every waking second of the day. The first time I tried to meditate, I set a goal of 30 minutes. After experiencing nothing but discomfort for as long as I could take it, I assumed I was close to the 30 minutes. It was, in fact, 3 minutes.
Thankfully, one hold-over from my former life that I brought with me into the 2.0 version is persistence. Despite really not liking the whole concept of sitting still and watching my crazy thoughts zip by and feeling like I was wasting time which was a big no-no in my past life, I forced myself to just do it. Just keep sitting still, day after day, even if only for a few minutes. And of course, it eventually became a habit. I slowly noticed that while some sessions were not comfortable, others were wonderful. I also began to notice how much less reactive I was as each day’s events unfolded.
We get stuck in the minutiae of our daily lives and so sometimes we need to step back and look at our own bigger picture. And that’s how my ah-ha moment arose. I was sitting in my backyard watching the goldfish flitter about in the pond and a thought popped into my head, which was, “why aren’t I stressed out?” We currently have 33 workshops booked and that’s a lot of content, logistics and activities to figure out. I am writing a book with a deadline looming and I’ve got complete writer’s block. We have this weekly podcast and blog to produce. We have coaching clients whose challenges can’t be scheduled – they pop up on a regular basis and require immediate attention. There is of course the daily administrative, bookkeeping and other business activities that have to be constantly addressed. For a small company, that’s a lot on a plate. But the reason I was wondering about my stress level is that on top of all of the ongoing activities, we’re starting a nonprofit organization and launching an online coaching certification program this month. That’s a crazy amount of work to get done! And yet, there I was, watching goldfish swim and feeling totally relaxed.
And that’s when it occurred to me that all of this mindfulness stuff and meditating really, really works. It didn’t work overnight. It didn’t even work consistently the first few years. But clearly my brain has changed over time and when I think about everything that has to get done, instead of anxiety, my automatic response is, it will. Everything I need to do eventually gets done. I even tested my state of being by trying to think of every task that needs to be done in the next week. I got no reaction. The 1.0 version of me would have been frantic, but it’s as if that state of being is no longer available to me. This feeling of calm, in the midst of what really should be at least a little anxiety-producing, was so alien to me that I had to sit quite a bit longer, watching those fish, to reflect on what it means and how I got here.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m no Zen master. In fact, I just came off of a two-month period of nothing but stress and anxiety over problems that arose and that were very challenging to address. But upon reflecting on that, I realized that the stress was in the minutiae, not the big picture. I never doubted we would solve the problems. I didn’t like having to go through it, but in thinking about what transpired, I realized it was more like trying to navigate a ship through a storm than feeling like the ship was capsizing. There was a part of me that truly understood that this too, shall pass.
Naturally, because of what I do for a living, my thoughts turned to how to share this amazing way of being with others. How could I teach this? How could I motivate others to try this? And of course, the answer is that I can’t. I can and do share the steps to take, I share the reality that it may take a long time, and I share the results of thousands of studies that confirm the benefits of mindfulness and meditation. Absolutely anyone can do this, but we each have to decide we want to, and then we have to actually do the hard work to get there. That takes both time and perseverance. And in a world of instant gratification, there are easier ways to feel better right now.
It is our nature to avoid discomfort and seek pleasure. But maybe we can start with baby-steps. The next time you have a strong desire for something right now, see if you can postpone filling that need or desire, even if only by a few minutes. Whether food, drink or activity, just hold off a little while and see if you still want it. Part of what drives us to seek instant gratification is the extreme discomfort that arises from feeling deprived. So don’t deprive yourself of something you want. Simply allow a little time in between the thought that you want it and actually getting or taking it. Notice that it’s not fatal. It’s just a difference in time.
If you continue to build on that practice – pause and breathe before grabbing onto that pleasurable experience or sticking with an unpleasant experience for just a few minutes – you might find that your brain stops demanding instant gratification.
When I went back to school to get my master’s degree while working full-time, someone asked me why I would do that to myself, especially at this stage of life. My answer was that the same amount of time will pass, whether I’m getting a degree or sitting at home in the evenings watching TV. Whether I finished my degree in 3 years or 5, in the end, the degree would serve me much better than the instant relief of zoning out watching episodes of television shows. I’ve found that this philosophy is true for everything in life. Time passes. Whether we’re instantly appeased by something or working on something longer-term, the same amount of time goes by.
Mindfulness is awareness of the present, but it is also awareness of the context of this moment in the bigger picture. What could you do now, perhaps a little each day, that might provide rewards months or years from now? Definitely food for thought.
Have a mindful week,